Mindfulness practices like meditation have been in existence for thousands of years, but only now are they reaching the tipping point in the Western world. Today's pace and stress are so great that people are searching for new practices to find resilience in the midst of chaos, and mindfulness programs are helping them find better ways to live.
Mindfulness, the practice of self-observation without judgment, encompasses an array of activities in which we focus inward on our minds and our inner voices. New research studies are demonstrating conclusively that meditation and mindfulness are good for your health -- and for your soul. This is why each of us should consider balancing the fast-paced nature of our lives with individual practices that cultivate mindfulness.
My Experiences with Meditation
I began meditating thirty-seven years ago after my wife Penny dragged me "kicking and screaming" to a weekend training program in transcendental meditation at the University of Minnesota. I started meditating twenty minutes, twice a day, and stayed with the practice because I felt better and was more effective at work and at home. Meditation helps me relieve the stress of the day, gain clarity about what's important, open up creative ideas, and find added energy and a deep sense of well-being. For a practice that costs nothing and doesn't involve medication, that's a good bargain.
For years I was reluctant to talk about meditating, as it sounded too "new age," especially to the media. Today, mindfulness is becoming mainstream, no longer confined to closed-door meditation circles and therapy sessions. Public interest in mindfulness is increasing, as evidenced by the proliferation of literature on the subject; an Amazon search for "mindfulness" brings up 4,006 books.
Let me describe how meditation works in my daily life. When I open my emails, I am bombarded with requests and information. There are packages to read from the boards on which I serve, messages from Harvard colleagues, inquiries about speaking, and an unending stream of requests. Meanwhile, the phone is ringing, people are stopping by my office with questions, and I am trying to prepare to teach my next class. Navigating through these issues requires constant context shifting, which can leave me mentally drained.
After I meditate, I feel calm and centered, having slowed my mind from the adrenalin-fueled, frenetic workday pace. Consequently, I am able to focus deeply on the big questions and do my most productive thinking. The clarity that comes with meditation enables me to escape from my never-ending "to do" list and concentrate on my most important priorities, not letting them be overtaken by the urgent, less important tasks that can be delegated. The self-awareness that comes from meditation helps me understand how others perceive me and how to empower them.
The Science of Meditation
Research has shown that meditation is powerful enough to alter the makeup of the human mind. Thanks to the personal dedication of the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute he founded in the U.S., neuro science researchers are studying mindfulness meditation. Breakthrough research using fMRI technology conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated the correlation between mindfulness and changes in the regions of the brain related to learning, memory, and emotion. Other studies have shown that mindfulness is as effective for treating depression as antidepressant drugs.
A Massachusetts General Hospital study discovered that meditation has the ability to change one's gene expression (which genes are turned "on" or "off") in as little as six weeks, based on blood samples before and after meditation. Genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance were enhanced while genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways were reduced. Another Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that eight weeks of meditation shrunk the amygdala, the portion of the brain modulating response to fear and stress.
Meditation and its Applications
In a recent Huffington Post article, my wife Penny highlighted the importance of mindfulness in integrative medicine in connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Integrative medicine encourages patients to practice inexpensive and non-toxic activities such as yoga, massage, healthy eating, and mindfulness meditation in combination with conventional Western medicine. Mindfulness is also practiced by health professionals in order to cope with the immense stress of their work. Allina Health, the largest health system in Minnesota, offers resilience-training programs for employees that encourage mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise to manage anxiety and depression.
Most leaders do everything they can to shape their enterprises, but if they don't step back from constant action, they lose perspective and their sense of priority, as well as their ability to create original solutions. That's why many companies like Walt Disney, General Mills, and Google have made mindfulness an important element of their company cultures by offering it to their employees.
Thirty years ago, Disney brought in Ron Alexander, a meditation teacher, to teach seminars to inspire their creative teams. Following the meditation seminars, Disney's teams dreamed up Tokyo Disney, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Today, the company incorporates meditative practice into its workplace and is regarded as one of the world's most innovative companies.
For the past seven years, General Mills employees have engaged in meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices while at work. General Mills reports that 80 percent of employees practicing mindfulness were able to make better decisions with greater clarity and 89 percent reported enhanced ability in listening to others. Marturano recently formed the Institute for Mindful Leadership to bring mindfulness training to corporate executives.
In April 2012, Google announced a new program titled "Search Inside Yourself," a free course for employees designed to teach emotional intelligence through the practice of meditation. The program was designed by Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer looking for a way to ease the burden of Google's fast-paced, demanding environment. Mr. Tan's program is very popular among employees, generating a waiting list each time it's offered.
Cultivating mindfulness takes daily practice. Mindfulness allows us to live in the present, bringing a deeper understanding of what is happening and how we respond to it. I urge you to give it a try. You will be glad you did, and so will those around you.
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.